Friday, May 23, 2014

Following Jesus in Suffering (part 4/4)

Click the picture for the whole series
The path of discipleship leads to the cross. We follow after Jesus, whose life was lived in direct course toward shameful execution as an insurrectionist by the Roman empire. Though we often seek to avoid it, to give our lives to the gospel includes an embrace of that same path in which Jesus walked. Our hope and our comfort is that we do not walk alone in our pain. Even when lonely or grieving, rejected or misunderstood, Jesus walks beside us, leading the way through the storm and toward our ultimate salvation.

With Peter's testimony as his source, John Mark sought to pen an account of Jesus' life that would be an encouragement to the persecuted church, and a support to Peter's teachings that they should endure through suffering and hope for God's final justice. His book, the gospel of Mark, would serve to inspire two more accounts, Matthew and Luke, and become a central document of the early Christian movement. He likely drew upon his own experiences with rejection, as well as his and Peter's own personal failures as they had succumbed to the temptation to compromise in the face of persecution.

Mark's style is matter-of-fact, to the point, and fast-paced. His account of the life of Jesus makes generous use of the word "immediately", sometimes several times in one chapter. Jesus is seen in action more than teaching, especially when compared to the other three gospel accounts.

Just as Peter emphasized in his letters, Mark reminds his reader that the life of discipleship comes at a steep price. Jesus himself is rejected, threatened, or persecuted throughout the narrative. More of the gospel is spent describing Jesus' suffering at the cross than any other. The foil to the message in Mark's book is Peter himself, whose character is more frequently foolish in Mark than any other gospel.

Mark 8:31-38 (ESV)
    31  And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. 36  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Peter himself misunderstood the cost of following Jesus at the beginning. He desired, as many of those oppressed by the Romans also desired, for Jesus to lead a revolt and establish a new order. Talk of suffering and rejection was antithetical to the point of Jesus' ministry, as far as Peter was concerned. Jesus says Peter's desire to escape suffering reveals that his mind is not on the things of God. He is more interested in his comfort than in God's eternal plan. In this and other accounts of his own failure, Peter humbly admits his own ignorance as an example to the reader of the truly upside-down nature of God's Kingdom and its citizens.

In Mark, the early Christians were presented with Jesus as they would best be encouraged by him. Jesus is an enigma in Mark, often running away to be alone, entering cities quietly, and asking those he healed to keep his ministry secret. Jesus lives under the same oppressive Roman authority as the early Christians. His message was of a new Kingdom, a new order. He lived in the generation after hundreds of Jews had been crucified for insurrection. He couldn't afford to be too public, just as the early Christians after him also had to learn to be discreet. Jesus as the rejected, lonely, and suffering Messiah, running and hiding from the public eye would have resonated strongly with his scattered and misunderstood followers. They were not alone. They were joining their King in the same life he now shares with them. As he had endured and conquered, so would they.

Still, on this side of eternity, the disciples were going to suffer great pain. They would be lonely, rejected, and abused. There would be times when they would question their faith and the cost of their discipleship. The promise if Mark's gospel was that Jesus had entered their pain, that they never were alone, that even if they walked to their execution, Jesus had been there, too. There was no darkness they would ever face that their Saviour did not also know. Our promise is the same.

Miracle by Dave Von Bieker, on Christ's presence in our suffering.
Mark 13:9-11
9  “But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.

Hardship in true and active discipleship was certain. The hope they shared was that victory in the power of the Holy Spirit was even more certain. They were not alone. They carried the resurrection life of Jesus inside them. They didn't need to fear the authorities. They followed the true King of kings, and his will would be accomplished in them no matter how bad the temporary circumstances may have otherwise appeared.

Jesus portrayed as the suffering servant in Mark was right in the stream of how he had been foretold by the prophets.

Isaiah 53:1-6 (ESV)
Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
     and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
    a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
     smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
     and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

This prophesy was the good news that saved both Peter and John Mark. It was by Peter that he had been despised and rejected. It was John Mark who had gone his own way, like a lost sheep. It was for the sorrows of both men that Jesus went to the cross. It was for the joy of giving the gift of grace, a second chance, that he willingly endured the shame of crucifixion. Like Peter and John, we also have gone astray, choosing our own easier paths over the ultimate surrender of following after the ultimate servant. Despite our many failures, Jesus made us worthy to be called his disciples by his own sacrifice. Jesus carried the iniquity of every one of us, the oppressor and the oppressed.  Our iniquity, our selfishness and oppression and hedonism, has been traded for the true life of Jesus. With his life planted in us, he is working his will in the world through us. Our hope is for the future Kingdom of justice and truth not only for our own sake, but for the entire world.

To Be Alone With You by Sufjan Stevens

Finally, it would be irresponsible (and offensive) to suggest that all Christians today face the same kind of persecution and difficulty as the early Christians who were first reading Mark's gospel or Peter's letters. Far from being a persecuted minority, the evangelical church of North America experiences a very privileged culture. The Christian mainstream is a dominant cultural force, and even Christians that don't feel they identify strongly with that mainstream culture (including myself), do still reap the benefits of that culture every day. Mark and Peter remind us not to forget our brothers and sisters around the world who do not have the same privilege we do. The stories of the persecuted church in China and Vietnam and Palestine are part of our story as well. It does no good to our brothers and sisters who face real persecution for us to create a story of persecution for ourselves in the privileged west. Let us humbly remember and pray for those in the church who daily face some of the same horrors as the scattered church of the first century. Also, let the reminder of our privilege be an opportunity for us to be humbled. We have immigrant families in our neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces, and churches. Let us not become to them as the Roman Empire was to us. Let's be willing to set aside our privilege as Christ did his to humbly hear the stories of the truly oppressed, and learn to walk with them in their struggle for freedom and justice.

When we begin to live in this humble solidarity with the most vulnerable around us, we will truly be following in the footsteps of our Rabbi, Jesus. As we raise our voices with theirs, we will begin to find ourselves beginning to walk out of step with the mainstream, a necessary part of our struggle of resistance against the principalities and powers of the empire in which we live. Just as with the early Christians, persecution and difficulty will be part of the experience of our faith if we follow after Jesus in this way. Many of us may experience this suffering far less than the early Christians, or the Christians today who live in countries with greater physical persecution. Or you may be a Jesus Follower reading this and truly be facing the kind of suffering described in this introduction. Either way, pain is real, and our Saviour promises to lift our burden.

Nobody knows the personal pain that you carry. No matter how close our loved ones may be, there are pieces of our hearts, lonely places that can never be truly known. Our struggles with sin are our own, and there are dark places in all of our hearts that could never be truly understood by any other person, failures, temptations, or regrets that we alone know. But we are not alone in suffering. We can all be encouraged when we know that our King and Saviour is not a severe or distant deity with whom we have no common ground. Jesus our Lord experienced the deepest of human torment, abuse, loneliness, rejection, and pain. He knows our weaknesses and temptations, because they were his as well. He was misunderstood, falsely accused, and betrayed. He shares the same hand that was dealt to us. It is through him and for him that we live contrary to the wickedness of the world. As we do, he walks with us every step of the way. When no one else understands, he does. He is faithful. He will see us through.

No comments:

Post a Comment